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When it comes to ribs, it’s pretty much impossible to go wrong. Whether they’re beef, pork, or some more esoteric animal, ribs are the perfect mix of meaty, fatty, and bony, creating a perfect handhold and ensuring a delightful sear and texture.
Of the various types of rib though, pork ribs are my personal favorite. While lamb or goat ribs are an excellent treat, and beef ribs have a delicious, deep and beefy flavor, pork ribs are the perfect confluence of tasty, easy to prepare, and inexpensive. Whether slathered in a standard brown sugar barbeque sauce or taken a little more avant-garde with a mustard base, pork ribs take any flavor well.
That only really leaves one question: what’s the deal with the different kinds of pork ribs? Well, let’s take a quick crack at answering that question and break it down to its bare essentials.
READ MORE: Great BBQ Ribs Recipes.
1. Baby Back Ribs
Photo Credit: Kurman Communications, Inc.
Starting us off is potentially the most famous type of rib for most people. Baby back ribs are, as the name implies, pulled from the back of the pig. These ribs are located closer to the spine and are significantly smaller than the other type of rib, the spare ribs. Unlike the name implies, you don’t need to have any moral qualms about baby back ribs like you might for veal and lamb; they’re not harvested from little piglets; the name simply refers to the diminutive size of these ribs.
These ribs, as mentioned, are fairly well known, in large part due to a smash hit marketing campaign from a certain fast casual dining restaurant chain, whose jingle is probably running through your head right now. As a result, baby back ribs tend to be a bit more expensive than other rib types…for no discernible qualitative reason, in my opinion. The difference in meat quality between baby backs and other ribs is miniscule or nonexistent, with the main difference being baby back ribs having a slightly softer texture and smaller bones.
In terms of flavor, these are pretty much the same as other pork ribs, but tend to be less fatty, and cook significantly quicker due to the overall smaller surface area. Just keep in mind that smaller ribs mean less food, so if you’re cooking for a crowd you’ll need a few more racks than you might otherwise want to grab.
2. Spare Ribs
Spare ribs (or spareribs if you prefer) are, to me, the pinnacle of pork ribs. These come from the belly area, just up from where you’ll find the delicious meat that makes various types of bacon. Spare ribs bring their own kind of charm to the table with a deeper flavor and striated feel to the meat; somewhere between a ham and a pork chop in terms of texture.
True racks of spare ribs are huge, with a delicious segment toward one end that is pure meat. This segment alone is worth buying spare ribs over any other type of rib. When properly smoked or barbequed, this meat acts as a repository for every single bit of flavor you’ll find scattered throughout the rest of the rack. If the rest is good, the meat cap on the end is pure excellence.
Spare ribs are thick and meaty, but truth be told hard to work with in some ways. I think it’s worth the hassle if you’re willing to take the time on it, but if you’re looking to throw some ribs on and have a nice dinner after just a couple of hours (ribs need not be just a weekend project, after all!), spare ribs can be more trouble than you might be willing to work with at the time, especially when it comes time to separate them into individual ribs after cooking.
The breastbone part can be a pain, but of special note is the cartilage between ribs that holds everything together at the top…right where all that best meat is. It can be hard to chop through, especially if you’re not comfortable using a cleaver (truth be told I’m not, and am more than willing to take a bit of added struggle to instead use a sturdy chef’s knife for stability).
Full spare rib racks also take a long time to cook compared to other varieties, so be sure to strap in for the long haul and be careful not to under or overcook them.
3. St. Louis Style Ribs
Photo Credit: Ernesto Andrade
While you could be forgiven for thinking this is a different type of rib entirely, you’d be wrong.
St. Louis Style ribs are spare ribs from the exact same cut of meat as the full cut above. The main difference here is in preparation: the St. Louis Style cuts the ribs into an almost perfectly uniform rectangle across the rib.
This means that with the exception of the very shortest rib at the end, each rib is the same length. This isn’t just for aesthetic purposes however, it serves a very specific need: cutting off the breastbone and cartilage that makes spare ribs so difficult to deal with.
This can be a double edged sword in some ways, of course. You lose that delicious, meaty cut at the end that I raved about for so long, after all, but it more than makes up for that loss in being the best all rounder rib type; these are widely available, relatively inexpensive, and easy to prepare. A good rack of St. Louis Style ribs can be prepared as a weeknight meal or a special holiday treat and feel right at home in both arenas.
What you lose in flavor you more than make up for in potential frustration and messiness, for sure.
And that about wraps it up for pork ribs. As you can see, the difference between the different types is largely in terms of preparation and aesthetics rather than quality, so it all depends on how much you’re willing to pay and how much work you really want to do to get great results.